27 January 2007

From the Ear to the Eye

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Language — ktismatics @ 4:19 pm

We’ve been following Alfred Crosby as he tracks the gradual shift toward quantitative thinking during the late Middle Ages. But, says Crosby, what struck the match that set Western culture ablaze was an enhanced and generalized sense of the visual. Consider literacy. Traditionally the main organ for receiving knowledge was the ear. People didn’t read; they listened to oral recitations of Scripture or epics or tales. Writing was speech on a page, so people typically read aloud — scriptoria and libraries were noisy places in the Middle Ages. There were no separations between words and no punctuation, so it was easier to understand the text by ear than by sight. St. Augustine marveled that when his mentor, St. Anselm, read, his eyes scanned the page, and his heart, explored the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Augustine speculated that Anselm was saving his voice for public recitations.

It was probably the sheer volume of texts flooding into Europe that stimulated 13th century scholars to read more quickly, silently, by sight rather than by ear. Copyists began making texts easier on the eye. Reading, which had been a kind of public performance, became an individual private act — and a potentially heretical one, as the Reformation would soon demonstrate.

We’ll continue following Crosby as he illustrates how the shift to visualization transformed other aspects of Western culture.



  1. *listening*


    Comment by Odile — 28 January 2007 @ 10:17 pm

  2. When we read silently to ourselves it’s as if the words take shape inside our minds. If we hear someone read aloud, it’s clear that the words exist outside of us and are coming toward us and into us.


    Comment by ktismatics — 29 January 2007 @ 4:40 am

  3. Do the words always take shape in our minds? Sometimes we just kind of scan over the words and some kind of sense (or non-sense) of the text presents itself to our mind. Maybe an image of a setting in a novel. Maybe a logical train of thought. Or maybe some kind of muddled mess that’s not really all that clear yet….


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 29 January 2007 @ 7:15 pm

  4. The scanned text might not take shape as distinct words, but the input is visual so the visual parts of the brain have to be involved. But there’s also a language-processing part that gets involved as well, which isn’t specifically visual or auditory. I took a speed-reading course once, where the objective was to get a kind of holistic fuzzy image of the flow and the structure of the language without getting hung up on specific words. I think it’s probably easier to get this general impression of meaning by reading silently (and quickly) than by reading aloud or listening.

    Why do you ask? Oh, I see — it’s from my response to Odile. “Take shape in our minds” was the idea I was trying to emphasize. Silent reading is a lot more like thinking, whereas listening more obviously involves sensory input from outside yourself. Or at least that’s my impression.


    Comment by ktismatics — 29 January 2007 @ 7:37 pm

  5. I hear thoughts. There is much nuance in your writing, I need to take time to read it, especially to realize how everything relates. Some texts I read quickly (because most is familiar), some I need to read slowly (particularly detailed information).
    I think of countries today that might go through the same development.


    Comment by Odile — 3 February 2007 @ 11:59 pm

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